The Ten Books on Architecture, 7.5

Vitruvius  translated by Joseph Gwilt

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Of the Use of Painting in Buildings

5In the other rooms, namely, those for vernal, autumnal and summer use: in atria also, and peristylia, certain kinds of pictures were used by the ancients. Painting represents subjects which exist or may exist, such as men, houses, ships, and other things, the forms and precise figures of which are transferred to their representations. Hence those of the ancients who first used polished coats of plastering, originally imitated the variety and arrangement of inlaid marbles. Afterwards the variety was extended to the cornices, and the yellow and red frames of pannels,

2from which they proceeded to the representations of buildings, columns, and the projections of roofs. In spacious apartments, such as exedræ, on account of their extent, they decorated the walls with scenery, after the tragic, comic or satyric mode; and galleries from their extended length, they decorated with varied landscapes, the representations of particular spots. In these they also painted ports, promontories, the coasts of the sea, rivers, fountains, straits, groves, mountains, cattle, shepherds, and sometimes figures representing gods, and stories, such as the Trojan battles, or the wanderings of Ulysses over different countries, and other subjects, founded on real history.

3But those which were used by the ancients are now tastelessly laid aside: inasmuch as monsters are painted in the present day rather than objects whose prototype are to be observed in nature. For columns reeds are substituted; for pediments the stalks, leaves, and tendrils of plants; candelabra are made to support the representations of small buildings, from whose summits many stalks appear to spring with absurd figures thereon. Not less so are those stalks with figures rising from them, some with human heads, and others with the heads of beasts;

4because similar forms never did, do, nor can exist in nature. These new fashions have so much prevailed, that for want of competent judges, true art is little esteemed. How is it possible for a reed to support a roof, or a candelabrum to bear a house with the ornaments on its roof, or a small and pliant stalk to carry a sitting figure; or, that half figures and flowers at the same time should spring out of roots and stalks? And yet the public, so far from discouraging these falsehoods, are delighted with them, not for a moment considering whether such things could exist. Hence the minds of the multitude, misled by improper judges, do not discern that which is founded on reason and the rules of propriety. No pictures should be tolerated but those established on the basis of truth; and although admirably painted, they should be immediately discarded, if they transgress the rules of propriety and perspicuity as respects the subject.

5At Tralles, a town of Lydia, when Apaturius of Alabanda had painted an elegant scene for the little theatre which they call ἐκκλησιαστήριον, in which, instead of columns, he introduced statues and centaurs to support the epistylium, the circular end of the dome, and angles of the pediments, and ornamented the cornice with lions’ heads, all which are appropriate as ornaments of the roofing and eaves of edifices; he painted above them, in the episcenium, a repetition of the domes, porticos, half pediments, and other parts of roofs and their ornaments. Upon the exhibition of this scene, which on account of its richness gave great satisfaction, everyone was ready to applaud, when Licinius, the mathematician, advanced, and thus addressed them:

6“The Alabandines are sufficiently informed in civil matters, but are without judgment on subjects of less moment; for the statues in their Gymnasium are all in the attitude of pleading causes, whilst those in the forum are holding the discus, or in the attitude of running, or playing with balls, so that the impropriety of the attitudes of the figures in such places disgraces the city. Let us therefore, be careful by our treatment of the scene of Apaturius, not to deserve the appellation of Alabandines or Abderites; for who among you would place columns or pediments on the tiles which cover the roofs of your houses? These things stand on the floors, not on the tiles. If, then, approbation is conferred on representations in painting which cannot exist in fact, we of this city shall be like those who for a similar error are accounted illiterate.”

7Apaturius dared not reply, but took down and altered the scene, so as to make it consistent with truth, and then it was approved. O that the gods would restore Licinius to life, that he might correct the folly, and fashionable inconsistency in our stucco work. It is not foreign to my purpose to show how inconsistency overcomes truth. The ancients laboured to accomplish and render pleasing by dint of art, that which in the present day is obtained by means of strong and gaudy colouring, and for the effect which was formerly obtained only by the skill of the artist, a prodigal expense is now substituted,

8Who in former times used minium otherwise than as a medicine? In the present age, however, walls are every where covered with it To this may be added the use of chrysocolla, purple, and azure decorations, which, without the aid of real art, produce a splendid effect. These are so costly, that unless otherwise stated in agreements, they are to be, by law, charged to the account of the employer. To my utmost I have described the means for avoiding defective plastering, and as lime has previously been sufficiently treated of, it now remains to treat of marble.

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